|Died||March 6, 1974 (aged 49)|
|Alma mater||Syracuse University|
|Known for||Eliciting the creation of Terror Management Theory|
|The Denial of Death|
|Awards||Pulitzer Prize (1974)|
|Website||The Ernest Becker Foundation|
Becker was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, to Jewish immigrant parents. After completing World War II military service, in which he served in the infantry and helped to liberate a Nazi concentration camp, he attended Syracuse University in New York. Upon graduation he joined the US Embassy in Paris as an administrative officer. In his early 30s, he returned to Syracuse University to pursue graduate studies in cultural anthropology. He completed his Ph.D. in 1960. The first of his nine books, Zen: A Rational Critique (1961) was based on his doctoral dissertation. After Syracuse, he became a professor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada.
After graduating from Syracuse University in 1960, Becker began his career as a teaching professor and writer. Becker taught anthropology in the Department of Psychiatry at the Upstate Medical College in Syracuse, New York. Becker was summarily fired, along with other non-tenured professors, for supporting tenured Professor Thomas Szasz in a dispute with the administration over academic freedom. After a year in Italy, Becker was hired back at Syracuse University, this time in the School of Education. In 1965, Becker acquired a lecturer position at the University of California, Berkeley in the anthropology program. However, trouble again arose between him and the administration, leading to his departure from the university. At the time, thousands of students petitioned to keep Becker at the school and offered to pay his salary, but the petition did not succeed in retaining Becker. In 1967, he taught at San Francisco State's Department of Psychology until January 1969 when he resigned in protest against the administration's stringent policies against the student demonstrations.
In 1969, Becker began a professorship at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he would spend the remaining years of his academic life. During the next five years, he wrote his 1974 Pulitzer Prize–winning work, The Denial of Death. Additionally, he worked on the second edition to The Birth and Death of Meaning, and wrote Escape from Evil. In November 1972, Ernest Becker was diagnosed with cancer.
Becker's insistence on interdisciplinary work, along with the fact that students flocked to his lectures, which were marked by a high level of dramatic theatricality, did not endear him to many of his colleagues. Referring to his insistence on the importance symbolism plays in the human animal, he wrote "I have tried to correct... bias by showing how deep theatrical "superficialities" really go". It was only with the award of the Pulitzer Prize in 1974 (two months after his death from cancer at the age of 49) for his 1973 book, The Denial of Death, that he gained wider recognition. Escape From Evil (1975) was intended as a significant extension of the line of reasoning begun in The Denial of Death, developing the social and cultural implications of the concepts explored in the earlier book. Although the manuscript's second half was left unfinished at the time of his death, it was completed from what manuscript existed as well as from notes on the unfinished chapter.
Becker was fired from his first academic position at Upstate Medical College in Syracuse, NY before attaining tenure, as a result of a dispute the school had with "anti-psychiatrist" Thomas Szasz. For this reason, Szasz's views are sometimes imputed to Becker. However, Becker's support of Szasz was limited to the issue of academic freedom – whether or not Szasz (who had tenure) had the right to teach his views to psychiatry students. During this early period Becker was formulating a "fully transactional" view of mental health that eventually formed the basis for his book, "Revolution in Psychiatry" (1964). Although Szasz is cited on a few key points in this book, Becker pursues a very distinct path.
Becker eventually came to the position that psychological inquiry can only bring us to a distinct threshold, beyond which belief systems must be invoked to satisfy the human psyche. The reach of such a perspective consequently encompasses science and religion, even to what Sam Keen suggests is Becker's greatest achievement, the creation of the "Escape from Evil". In formulating his theories Becker drew on the work of Søren Kierkegaard, Sigmund Freud, Wilhelm Reich, Norman O. Brown, Erich Fromm, Hegel, and especially Otto Rank. Becker came to believe that individual character is essentially formed around the process of denying one's own mortality, that this denial is a necessary component of functioning in the world, and that this character-armor masks and obscures genuine self-knowledge. Much of the evil in the world, he believed, was a consequence of this need to deny death.
Becker also wrote The Birth and Death of Meaning, which gets its title from the concept of mankind moving away from the simple-minded ape into a world of symbols and illusions, and then deconstructing those illusions through our own evolving intellect.
Becker's work, particularly as expressed in his later books, The Denial of Death and Escape from Evil have had a significant impact on social psychology and the psychology of religion. Terror Management Theory, an important research programme in social psychology that has spawned over 200 published studies has turned Becker's views on the cultural influence of death anxiety into a scientific theory that helps to explain such diverse human phenomena as self-esteem, prejudice, and religion.
Becker died on March 6, 1974, from colon cancer in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada. Shortly before Becker's death, he participated in a series of interviews with Keen for Psychology Today. After his death, the Ernest Becker Foundation was founded devoted to multidisciplinary inquiries into human behavior, with a particular focus on contributing to the reduction of violence in human society, using Becker's basic ideas to support research and application at the interfaces of science, the humanities, social action and religion. Flight From Death (2003) is a documentary film directed by Patrick Shen, based on Becker's work, and partially funded by the Ernest Becker Foundation.
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